To Go Or Not To Go?
I had lunch with a twenty-something and thirty-something today. These two men happen to be two of my favorite people on planet earth. We had a great time together. Toward the end of our meal the conversation turned to church. During the conversation both agreed that attending church is unnecessary. One commented that Pope Francis made the statement: It is not necessary to go to church, and, for many nature can be a church. The other made the accurate observation that the early followers of Christ didn’t go to a church building to worship in the same way we do today. And I have to confess, I agree with him. And if you’re interested, you can listen to this guy who shares some of the same sentiments as the thirty-something who made that comment: If Jesus were the pastor of your church you probably wouldn’t go there
But what about that? What about the earliest Christians? If the earliest Christ followers didn’t do church the way we do today, why should we?
The Man Of God Who Did Not Attend Church
Before we look at the difference between how we do church today and how the earliest Christ followers did it, I’d like to acknowledge a biblical example of a man of God who did not attend church. That man was John the Baptist. Jesus certainly recognized him as a great man and it’s obvious he was used by God to accomplish great work for God’s kingdom. Yet it would seem that he didn’t attend services at God’s house of worship, which for him was the local synagogue. How can this be? We’ll revisit that just a little later in this post.
So What Did The Early Christ Followers Do Anyway?
I love the way the two men I had lunch with seek after knowledge. They both have a way of persistently looking for more accurate truth and better ways to live life. They often challenge me with their ideas and questions. And I often learn from them both. And you know what? What was said about the earliest Christ followers is true. The earliest Christ followers didn’t do church the way we do today. On average, church going Christians today attend church about once a month. They drive to a Christian church that is funded by church members. They usually sing praise songs or hymns for fifteen minutes or so. Then the pastor teaches for thirty to forty-five minutes. Then they drive home. A month or so later, they do it again. (PewResearch.org)
The earliest followers of Christ didn’t do it that way. The earliest followers of Christ didn’t meet in a Christian church. They met in the Jewish temple, there in Jerusalem. (Eventually they were thrown out. After that they met in public places or private homes.) And they didn’t meet every month. They met every day. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” And then after the service they would have a meal together. (I just learned today that the orthodox church still practices this tradition.) “From house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God…” And it would appear that they gave more than we do today. “…all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.”
So the earliest followers of Christ, the earliest church members, didn’t do it the way we do today, it’s true. They did more. (Acts 2:42-47)
Science And Going To Church
From my perspective there’s science supporting an answer to the question of whether or not we should attend church. Jesus said there is a foremost commandment (something I never realized until a few months ago). What Jesus said specifically was this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
I recently heard some research on a podcast called Freakonomics. The host is an economic behaviorist who sometimes points out examples of a phenomena called social norming. If you’re interested you can check out the episode called Riding the Heard Mentality. (A further description of the podcast episode is: How peer pressure can push people to do the right thing.)
The whole deal with social norming is that each one of us believes with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind that “I am my own man (or woman). And while others may be susceptible to the influence of who they surround themselves with, I think for myself.”
But over and over again science says otherwise. I’ve heard it proven in research multiple times on the Freakonomics podcast, and by Arizona State University professor Dr. Robert Cialdini, and also in research cited by Malcolm Gladwell. The influence of those we’re surrounded by is consistently underestimated. But it turns out it’s one of the most powerful forces there is when it comes to what determines our thinking and behavior.
So, if you believe Jesus’ words, that the foremost commandment is to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, then it makes sense to surround yourself with people who seek to love God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind. I believe John the Baptist was one who demonstrated love for God in the way Jesus describes without “going to church” as it were. But I think John the Baptist was an outlier. I know I can’t love God the way Jesus describes without the influence of Christ’s community. I think most everybody is the same. And I think many people know this intuitively and that’s why as soon as they have kids they decide they want to start attending church. They do it out of love for their son or daughter. Because they know their child will love God more deeply if they’re surrounded by people with a deep love of God. But what I’ve noticed is the children aren’t the only ones impacted. The parents’ love for Christ grows as well. A church filled with people who love God the way Jesus describes is almost inescapably influential.
But where can we find such a church? Because there are plenty of churches filled with people just going through the motions, lukewarm churches. And there are even churches filled with people worshipping something other than God. (Sadly, I just saw a video of a sermon encouraging people to come to church so they will gain money.) But the church that influences us to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind is the church filled with people who love God that way. So how do we find these lovers of God? Research. Ask around. Try different churches. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t fear trial and error. Don’t stop until you find the people who love God with everything they have.
Do whatever you have to do to find that church.
And go there,
That’s what the earliest followers of Christ did. That’s what it makes sense to do, even from a scientific perspective.
Go to church.
Pope Francis’s Quote
From what I can gather, the quote attributed to Pope Francis isn’t real. A photo of the Pope accompanied by a statement that includes the words about not going to church has circulated around the web for awhile now. But like many other photos accompanied by quotes circulating around the web it’s false. (If you’re interested you can read more at Snopes and Wikiquotes.)
The full misattributed quote accompanying the image of Pope Francis that you may have seen on the web is below.
“It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. In a way, the traditional. Notion of God is outdated. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to church and give money — for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history do not believe in God, while some of the worst deeds were done in His name.”
HT to Anastasia Bennett for educating me on the tradition of meals after the church service in the Orthodox Church.
Image via Saint-Petersburg Orthodox – Creative Commons
Should I go to church?